Friday, November 11, 2011

The Lake District

Colonial game wardens, earnest wildlife lobbyists and scheming government officials aren’t the easiest people in the world to share one’s life with.  They can be a little tedious, aren’t always thoughtful about where they gifted their papers, and are not, as a rule, terribly sympathetic types.  There are days when I emerge from the library owl-eyed, realising that I haven’t shared a word with another human being all day long, which probably accounts for my manically making extended conversation with the poor girl working at the college dining commons’ till who probably thinks I’m trying to make a pass at her.

My dear friend, Captain F C Selous
For restoring peace of mind, there’s nothing like heading to the countryside, and Britain’s national parks are almost absurdly accessible, by dint of the country’s small size, respectable train service (however reduced from its former glory by privatisation), and what to U.S. eyes are the peculiar nature of these parks.  They do not consist of state-owned land, and are rather the creation of agreements between the government, charitable bodies and property-owners—the culmination of which is the Right to Roam.

I like to think of modern environmentalism consisting of several strands which joined in the second half of the twentieth century: a ‘popular democratic’ strand (for a U.S. equivalent, think of the fights over the logging of old growth along the coast of northern California, or the outrage engendered by the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), a ‘romantic scientific’ bent (think of Aldo Leopold and his call for a ‘land ethic’ in A Sand County Almanac, or of the equation, in the early days of this republic, of the American Wilderness with Europe’s castles and cathedrals), and an ‘urban reformist’ thread (think Love Canal and the Superfund, or the late Wangari Maathai’s Greenbelt Movement).  It was the first which was instrumental in creating Britain’s parks.  Beginning in the sixteenth century, but quickening and continuing through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the old commons of England and other parts of the Islands began to be enclosed.  These processes of enclosure, encouraging the amassing of large concentrations of property with an eye to controlling labour and shifting to what were seen as more efficient agricultural practises, had the effect of disrupting older local relationships.  They came as Britain began the process of industrialisation, and were accompanied by increasingly draconian penalties for trespassing or hunting in warrens, chases, parks forests and increasingly, other private lands.
The hills above Derwent Water

The process of enclosure, along with the criminalisation of hunting (not new in itself, but intensified), ended centuries of multi- and overlapping-use of common lands, and put pressure on an already beleaguered rural population.  As older, informal avenues of survival were increasingly foreclosed by an active, authoritarian state, people turned to popular protest.  This protest, centred on access to land, took the form of killing deer or rabbits on private land, blackening faces, and assaulting keepers.  In the second half of the nineteenth century, individuals of both liberal and socialist persuasions mounted ‘back to the land’ campaigns.  Critiquing both the economy built around urban industrialism and the social relations that this economy engendered, ‘back to the land’ called for a democratic re-orientation towards agriculture.

And the reformist Liberal government elected in 1906, when stymied by the aristocratic House of Lords, turned its fire squarely on land-owners in the redistributive People’s Budget, calling into question the right to possess, untaxed, such enormous tracts of territory.  In the constitutional crisis that followed the land tax was abandoned, and to this day, as illustrated by Marion Shoard and Kevin Cahill (who has claimed that 70% of land in Britain is owned by less than 1% of its people), land ownership remains highly unequal.  But the popular demand for access went on, and borrowed from the growth of ‘rational recreation’ (in the Kinder Scout Trespass in the Peak District in 1932). 
The Lake District is very much a man-made terrain.

One historian describes how, on 24 April 1932, hoping to make progress through a mass trespass,

several hundred people with the usual police escort set off from the recreation ground in the village of Hayfield [...] and began walking towards William Clough, a narrow valley, with the intention of reaching the summit of Kinder Scout at just over 2,000 feet.  A few of the crowd left the path, crossed a stream and started up the valley side on their right, where they were challenged by eight gamekeepers armed with sticks.  Words were exchanged and a brief fight broke out in which little more than a few bruises were acquired by either side.  According to the myth, the crowd then surged to the summit where a victory rally was held.* was raining.

Reality (but what fun is that?) was likely more prosaic, but Kinder Scout entered walking mythology, and the Peak District became England’s first National Park in 1951.  It is now visited by around 10 million people each year. 

I hate to see the efforts of those early walkers go to waste, so a friend from my undergraduate days who is doing whatever frightfully brilliant people do at Oxford and I set off for a week-end in the Lake District, my favourite bit of Britain, up in Cumbria.  Cambridge is objectionably flat, so I got that familiar thrill as the train made its way up into the hills and ‘peaks’, their lower slopes coloured red by the dying fern cover that looks less perfect up close.  Although the Lakes were a favourite haunt of mine during my last long stay in Britain, it had now been years since I’d visited, and on my last visit I’d been doing research at a little local museum in Kendal and had bid my farewell to this enchanting corner of England from a snow-covered railway platform at Oxenholme in the darkness of a frigid winter night.

I couldn't say where this is...very likely somewhere I got us lost.
But the weather was spectacular for late-October when we arrived in Penrith, and held for the remainder of the day as we took the bus into Keswick, quieter in October than in the summer, when it bulges at the seams thanks to the influx of what a curmudgeonly Cumbrian called the ‘blue-rinse brigade’.  Coming around the edge of Derwent Water in the evening, we were just in time to see an otter slip into the lake and bob off around the corner, perhaps home to its holt for the evening.  While the British countryside is like a miniature version of the mountains you’d find in the United States, of the valleys and highlands that ripple across East Africa, or the great expanses of forest in parts of northern Europe, it was impressive enough that gentlemen in the eighteenth century first began holidaying in the Lakes.  Locals and romantics from urban areas alike were sufficiently attached to its beauty that they fought the Manchester Corporation tooth and nail during the nineteenth century as it engineered the extraction of water from Thirlmere to quench the thirst of a growing industrial city. 

By the next morning, the weather gods had tired of indulging us, and sent a damp breeze down over the hills up which we made our way before cutting back down the side of the broad ridge that leads over to Honister Pass, our progress not helped by my inability to hold my precious OS map right-side up, let alone read it (this is where a second, discriminating pair of eyes helped...I’ve been known to get seriously lost finding my way to the pantry).  Spotty weather (under duress I rated it a 4/10, but it really wasn't that bad) mandated a stop in a tearoom in Buttermere to thaw hands, and it’s a pleasant feeling to be indoors without cares in inclement weather and realise that you don’t have to go back outside in any particular hurry (unlike my undignified flight from the library this evening into a showery evening dressed in shorts and flip-flops, to the amusement of the gatekeepers of the library who were presumably laying bets on how long it would take me to get up the courage to dash through the revolving doors into the nasty weather outside). 
By the shores of Buttermere Water

The following morning, as we made our way along Buttermere Water and up a trail—well, it looked like a trail to start with at least—alongside a waterfall, the clouds seemed to shut light and colour out of the landscape, turning the water, its rocky shores, and the trees along its edges—twisted, gnarled roots visible, having been undercut by the lapping of the lake—all the same shade of grey.  The only noticeable colour was on the poor sheep, which looked like they’d had a run-in with a graffiti artist. 

There'll always be an England that never was...
The evening, after making our way to Troutbeck via the bucolic shores of Windermere and much commentary on my map-reading skills (let's just say my sense of direction is marginally less keen than that of the birds that are winging their way south this time of year), was spent with dinner and biscuits at Windermere YHA, which overlooks rolling hills dotted with slate farm-houses and sheepfolds, subdivided by dry-stone walls, wandered over by walkers and spray-painted sheep.  Between which run the tree-lined, narrow country lanes which evoke, like little else, a version of England that probably never was, but which possesses all the more cultural power for its historical elusiveness.

It’s always something of a rude shock to come back from time away from it all.  On this occasion it sadly meant parting from my indulgent travelling companion, picking up a newspaper to learn that Greece was still hovering on the edge of an abyss, and setting off to deal with the dragon-like admissions officers who guard access to Oxford’s Bodleian Library (they’re androids,, really, you think I’m kidding?  They can’t smile).  And then back to my life with the wardens and lobbyists and District Commissioners.  This particular Friday night I'm writing about the case of the great Nyasaland game debate of 1946.  What?  You have something else to do?  But what could possibly be this interesting?  Hey, wait, come back...

*  Harold Sculthrope, Freedom to Roam.  London: Freedom Press, 1993: 20.

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